Children have many different ways of showing their emotions. They can show their emotions through their outward behaviour or they can internalise them, but it is very rare to find a child that is able to express their emotions verbally. Your child’s temperament will dictate their tendency to be vocal, to internalise or to show emotions outwardly, but it also may be situation-driven.
It’s important to bear in mind that children have very strong, real and valid emotions. Like some adults, they can struggle to recognise, articulate and release these emotions constructively. Their behaviour can often indicate – our red alert flag – that there is an issue they are unable to express. Sometimes, it’s a physical need such as hunger or tiredness which needs addressing, but more often than not there is an important emotional need that they require help with.
To have the question in your head, ‘What’s going on behind what I can see?’ will go a long way towards helping you address the problem and find solutions.
- Watch out for a change in your child: have they been unusually quiet, are they looking at the floor, turning away from you and grunting grumpy answers when they are usually fairly cheerful?
- Has he become physically aggressive: pushing a sibling, grabbing things, slamming a door, kicking out at you, biting or pinching?
- Is she being sarcastic or whining? Is she raising her voice?
- Are you getting shrugs and ‘dunno’ or ‘nothing!’ when you ask what is wrong?
- Are they avoiding physical contact or looking you in the eye?
As you have no doubt already found, you rarely get a straight answer when you ask what is wrong. Even if you do get an answer, it’s often not the real issue, and you can go down the wrong track. For example, ‘I don’t like school lunch’ can send you in the direction of ‘What did you eat? You like beans. Why didn’t you eat them? You must eat properly at lunchtime as you need to grow big and strong’. Whereas, if you use more general questions like, ‘I wonder if it was lunch or what happened at lunchtime that bothered you?’ you will often find that they felt lonely, or that they’d been teased about something in the playground after lunch or that a lunchtime helper had been impatient with them. From there you are in a much stronger position to find solutions:
- Make observations about what you see: ‘I can see you’re really upset about something. I can’t tell what it is and maybe you don’t even know yet.’
- ‘It sounds like you feel…’ (fill in the emotion that you think they might be experiencing, such as: frustrated, sad, confused, in a dilemma, jealous, irritated, disappointed, regretful, disillusioned, slumped, despondent, peeved, you want to be bigger, stronger, more successful, more popular).
- If they do tell you some of what is the matter then say things like, ‘Hmm, I can see that’s tricky. Yes, I understand why you’re so upset’. Don’t leap in with advice. Wait to see if they tell you anything further.
- You can add things like, ‘I wonder what the solution might be?’ ‘Do you have any ideas about how to fix this one?’ If they don’t seem to know what to do you can say, ‘I’ve got a suggestion. Would you like to hear it?’
Some situations just aren’t ‘fixable’. Your child may have had a massive disappointment, be grieving a loss, or be in challenging family circumstances. In this case you just need to keep reflecting on how they are feeling rather than trying to make it better. A child whose feelings are recognised and articulated for them (if they can’t express them themselves) will be able to accept the situation much quicker, and they will be able to find strengths and resources from within as opposed to being the victim of their circumstances.
Scarlett, aged 7, had been asking to go to Brownies for a while and was very excited about starting. The first three weeks seemed to go well, even though I was only able to collect her on the first week and our au pair did the other collections. She suddenly said on the way home from school, ‘I want to stop Brownies’. It was on the tip of my tongue to deliver the lecture that we don’t just give up and we must see things through, when I thought ‘What’s behind this?’ I asked her, ‘What’s bothering you about Brownies? You seem to enjoy it so much when you are there’. She said, ‘They’re going on a trip and I don’t know where and you haven’t paid, Mummy’. I realised that I was late handing in a consent form to take them to the Common and I hadn't paid for the trip. So, I explained to Scarlett that I'd get in touch with the leaders and sort it out and then I asked what else was bothering her. She said, ‘I can’t find my Brownie book’, which is a book they give the children to fill out if they want to. I promised that we’d have a look together in her bedroom as I was sure it was there. Lastly, the fact she didn’t have the uniform was also bothering her, so I agreed that after three more sessions I’d buy one. She smiled and said she didn’t want to give up any more.
My client Eliza had been to three sessions with me during which we had discussed the importance of listening to children's feelings. At the fourth session, she told me a lovely story. Her daughter, aged 6, had come home from school in a terrible mood. At supper she was rude about the food, started nudging her brother and then refused to eat anything. Eliza reminded herself that 'there must be something behind this' and, by thinking like that, she prevented herself from getting furious at the behaviour. She said, 'Rachel, you don't seem yourself. You don't seem happy. Did something at school make you unhappy?' Rachel looked down and didn't say anything. Eliza continued, 'Did something happen at playtime or in lessons? Maybe you couldn't find a friend to play with?' Suddenly, she saw big fat tears dropping onto Rachel's plate. She took her onto her lap and Rachel said, 'Since Sophie left, playtime isn't the same. I want to play our airplane game, but no one wants to play that game with me and when I play on my own I miss her so much'. She really started to sob as Eliza held and comforted her. As much as she wanted to 'make it all better' and tell her she would make new friends, Eliza bit her tongue and empathised how hard it is when a friend leaves and you feel lonely without that special bond. A few days later, Rachel came home from school saying, 'I think I've made a new friend, Mummy. Gemma is really nice and I might even teach her the airplane game'. Rachel had arrived at this point by herself, having unburdened her feelings to her mother.